Practical magic for you and a friend this Hallowe’en


Charlize Theron as a famous scryer in Snow White and the Huntsman

Last year’s Hallowe’en post here at the Uncertaintist described how turn-of-the-Twentieth-Century middle American adults celebrated the holiday with solitary dark-mirror scrying. Few of the novice scryers realized that it might really work, rapidly causing vivid worldly or otherworldly hallucinations.

Scrying’s fast, reliable and dramatic effectiveness, even for casual inexperienced users, was experimentally demonstrated by Giovanni Caputo in 2010. A few months ago, Caputo published new research on a related, two-person method of easily altering consciousness. Variations on the technique which Caputo studied are used by cults like Scientology and have been shown to work as a love charm as well – the ultimate two-person team activity. This is not just a way of seeing something that isn’t there, but it may also promote changes in thought and behavior as well.

Real magic, then, lurks a mouse click away, just in time for your holiday enjoyment…

Scrying, solo and in tandem

That Hallowe’en scrying was once widespread in America is shown by the many references to the practice in antique greeting cards and party-planning books. A text-searchable pdf of Mary E. Blain’s 1912 Games for Hallow-e’en is available to download on the Unlinks page. No fewer than four variations on mirror gazing are mentioned in her slim volume. First-person accounts of what happened are hard to find, however. The Winterhur blog reports an incident in an 1884 teenager’s diary, but with only tame results; the girl saw three initials (a future husband’s?) in her mirror.

All of Blain’s mirror games are designed for a single individual and her mirror (from the text and the cards, we see that it was usually a woman who scryed). Even though the seeker is often inquiring about her love life, no partner joins her in this query. In a book about parties with the word games in the title, the absence of a partner is especially noticeable.

Scrying is not inherently a solo activity. In 1893, chemist and historian Henry Carrington Bolton described an American husband and wife scrying team. His article is available online here, and includes a rich collection of factoids about catoptromancy, a fancy term for mirror scrying.

Bolton’s couple began scrying soon after their nine year-old daughter died. The gentleman made darkened mirrors for their use, which he held in front of his wife to scry. Bolton describes a session.

The negative, or medium (as my informant often called her), then gazes intently at the dark mirror, and visions and writings appear more or less clearly on its surface. The writings are in letters of divers colors; “red is the lowest, white higher in purity, and golden light is supreme.” Sometimes strange characters of unknown languages appear.

The written messages frequently came from Biblical figures, or famous historical persons. Bolton never mentions whether the couple tried to communicate with their daughter this way.

Got a partner? You don’t need the mirror


In his most recent paper, Caputo describes forty people, seated in pairs about three feet apart at the head, alone together in a dimly lit room. Subjects had not participated in psychology experiments before. They were told that the experiment was about open-eyed meditation.

Half the subjects, ten pairs, were seated face-to-face and instructed to stare into each other’s eyes for ten minutes. The other half were seated side-by-side and instructed to stare at a wall for ten minutes. As Caputo succinctly describes the result:

Participants belonging to the [eyes-staring] group described that they had a compelling experience that they had never had before. Instead, participants belonging to the [wall staring] group reported no special or unusual experience.

Staring into another person’s eyes in dim lighting had effects similar to viewing one’s own face in dim lighting – hallucinations and perceptions of a “strange face.” Although the wall-gazing group didn’t experience hallucinations, they apparently did have some feelings of “dissociation,” perhaps because of mild sensory deprivation.

The 2015 paper doesn’t directly compare mirror-gazing and eye-gazing according to the promptness with which weirdness happens. For an idea about that, you might turn to a YouTube video.

The experiments start at 3:15, first with the mirror and then mutual eye-gazing. Both methods are comparably prompt and effective in this tiny sample, when tried in that order.

The dark side and the light side

Caputo’s recent paper tries to sort out the effects of sensory deprivation (the low lighting and lack of variety in what you’re looking at) from the effects specific to processing faces (faces become distorted or replaced altogether by phantasms) under difficult viewing conditions (another effect of the low lighting). In this, he may be playing catch-up with Scientology.

A stare from Superbowl 2013 Scientology ad

A stare from the Superbowl 2013 Scientology ad

Scientology’s basic training, its first course offered to new members, is ostensibly about how to communicate effectively. It consists of exercises which include prolonged sitting with your eyes closed in the presence of a fellow student doing the same (sensory deprivation) and then later, one-on-one staring exercises. Although the staring is at full illumination, other stressful factors are introduced into the situation, especially the need to sit still – really still – for hours, on pain of being reprimanded.

Descriptions of the course and its training routines (the eyes-closed and staring occur among the early exercises, called “TR Zer0” in the group’s jargon) are easily found on the web. One report is here

There seem to be at least two identifiable effects of TR Zero. One is the signature (and apparently highly prized among the faithful) Scientologists’ “stare.” The still photograph is from the 2013 Scientology Superbowl commercial, still renowned as a visual tribute to the power of people staring. The other effect is, for some people, hallucinations.

When I had to do it, my first reaction upon staring at my partner was to laugh, but within a few minutes I really wanted to cry. Everything was itching everyplace. My muscles kept twitching while the rest of my body felt stiffer than the wooden chair I was on. After a while, my eyes started to blur, and then so did my mind, and I watched in horror as my partner turned into a breathing Rorschach card. His eyes, eyelashes and brows met, his nostrils merged and became a cruel, flaring cavern in the center of his face, and the shadows cast by this disfigured nose gave his entire face a sinister and terrifying quality.

– From

On a happier note, Caputo is also trying to fathom the psychological aspects of the experience. Turn the lights up, be comfortable and relaxed, and stare into someone’s eyes who’s staring into yours. What happens psychologically? What gets stirred up within? Affection, intimacy, and a romantic feeling.

Apparently, this effect was first reported in a 1989 paper by Kellerman, Lewis and Laird, based on two minutes of shared gazing (a citation appears below this article; a very small bit of Googlefu will locate a free copy of the paper for you, or any of the four mentioned, if you’re interested). A few years later, Arthur Aron of Stony Brook University (web page) and his co-workers incorporated four minutes of quiet staring into his own protocol for experimentally fostering intimacy, as the capstone of a suite of progressively more personal “getting to know you” questions. Aron’s recipe for love has taken off in popular culture, as evidenced by its use in an episode this year of the popular television situation comedy The Big Bang Theory.

One of the couples

One of the couples

Here is a very pleasant video which more seriously documents the experiences of a variety of couples who devoted four minutes to look quietly into each other’s eyes,

No hallucinations, but a pronounced adjustment of thinking.


… if you’d like to try any of this at home, then what with two minutes or four minutes or ten minutes of activity, you might find an online countdown timer to be handy. Despite the boxing-ring name, this one chimes gently at the end of its appointed interval. The timer runs with the browser minimized, freeing your screen for experimental purposes (e.g., use the webcam as a mirror, or to skype-gaze, or to display whatever image of whose eyes you choose).

Happy Hallowe’en.


Read all the Hallowe’en offerings at the Uncertaintist since 2012,

The archival academic articles mentioned in this post were:

Henry Carrington Bolton (1893), A modern oracle and Its prototypes: A study in catoptromancy, Journal of American Folklore, 6 (20), 25-37.

Giovanni B. Caputo (2010), Strange-face-in-the-mirror illusion, Perception 39 (7) 1007–1008.

Giovanni B. Caputo (2015), Dissociations and hallucinations in dyads engaged through interpersonal gazing, Psychiatry Research 228, 659-663.

Joan Kellerman, James Lewis, and James D. Laird (1989). Looking and loving: The effects of mutual gaze on feelings of romantic love, Journal of Research in Personality, 23 (2), 145-161.


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Filed under Hallowe'en, Psychology

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